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Critic's Notebook: Tony nominees' traditional, Method motivations

Whether it's with external dazzle or internal luminosity, British performers Brian Bedford and Mark Rylance and Americans Bobby Cannavale, Joe Mantello and Al Pacino set the lead actor category ablaze.

May 22, 2011|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

When Lear descends into madness, Jacobi speaks in the high-pitched squeal of a baffled child. (This puerile streak is tantalizingly indicated in the opening act, in which the King throws a tantrum after Cordelia refuses to play his flattering game.) Jacobi's line readings are all deftly worked out, leaving little room for spontaneity but ensuring that the story — served up as a domestic catastrophe rather than as a universal apocalypse — is meticulously delivered. Lear is an all-consuming theatrical challenge, one that requires an actor to pace himself as any mountaineer must do when scaling formidable heights. The two best Lears I've seen — Paul Scofield and Laurence Olivier — represent summits of acting prowess. I caught Scofield on video and Olivier on TV, but it was possible for me to imagine them performing the part multiple times a week onstage. When I fantasize about what Marlon Brando's Lear would have been like had he not retreated from his destiny, I can conjure up scattered dream-like images, but I cannot conceive of a performance that could be repeated again and again. A long run of Lear would have hastened his death even if he had been a better custodian of his talent.

The Method — that vague term signifying the multiple ways Stanislavski has been adapted in America — is unmatched for generating emotional truth, but only the most patriotic fool would deny that it comes at an exorbitant price. Stark Young once observed about Eugene O'Neill's playwriting that "what moved us was the cost to the dramatist of what he handled." Facility is fine, but greatness must be paid for in blood. I confess that I find nothing in the theater as compelling as the sight of an actor making such a sacrifice, even though I'm aware that this type of acting precludes the continuous activity and longevity that British thespians take for granted.

Loss made real

Pacino's Shylock wasn't the comic villain who elicited taunts and jeers from the Elizabethan groundlings, but a man oppressed, ghettoized and derided. He wore Shylock's Jewish suffering as naturally as the character's spat-upon gabardine. Vengeance took the form of an outcry against the moneylender's ostracized life experience. Seeking the exact penalty for his bond, Pacino's Shylock shambled into the courtroom like a weary vigilante with history on his side. The actor's hunched, unyielding realism may have had an unbalancing effect on the rest of Daniel Sullivan's production (the titular merchant of Venice, after all, isn't Shylock but Antonio, and the real star, Portia, insists that she's in a comedy). But this was a Shylock so alienated from the Venetian mainstream and so pained by his multiple losses that the image of his degradation at the end of the trial scene cast a pall over the play's honeymooning conclusion in Belmont.

A similar raw intensity can be found in Cannavale's portrait of Jackie, a recovering addict who discovers that his AA sponsor (Chris Rock, in his Broadway debut) has been messing around with his long-term (and still drug-using) girlfriend, Veronica (played by a fiery Elizabeth Rodriguez). Guirgis, author of "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" and "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," has written a streetwise comedy about down-and-out characters who lack fancy vocabularies but are nonetheless quite fluent at communicating their hostilities. Cannavale is the comic engine of the piece, a volatile guy hot on the trail of his own cuckolding, but he never loses sight of the precariousness of Jackie's sobriety or the self-destructive nature of his connection to a woman he's going to have to leave behind if he is to have half a chance of climbing out of his hole.

Mantello certainly doesn't take any emotional shortcuts in his hectoring, crusading and, in the end, extremely moving depiction of Ned Weeks, Larry Kramer's surrogate in "The Normal Heart," a play that has aged much more gracefully than I would have expected, thanks in large part to a note-perfect production directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe. The conflicted inner life of the protagonist is laid bare by Mantello, who understands that even a public crisis as overwhelming as the early days of the AIDS epidemic is experienced personally through the filter of one's past, present and imagined future. Better known as a Tony-winning director than as one of the original Broadway cast members of "Angels in America," Mantello fastens not only to Ned's political indignation and grief but also to his insecurities, doubts, dashed dreams and implacable hopes. Overcome by loss, Ned responds in this production with a sorrow that is at once communally shared and utterly unique. Kramer's work, often assumed to be an op-ed masquerading as a play, is revealed by Mantello's radical honesty to be first and foremost a character-centered drama.

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